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7 Reasons Horses Are Not Just Big Dogs

Horses can sometimes seem like a giant dog: you can walk them on a lead, they live in groups, you can teach them tricks, and they will beg for treats. Many a horse or pony enjoy a good scratch behind the ear, too, just like a dog. But are horses really big dogs in disguise? 

There are many reasons horses are NOT just big dogs. Yes, horses will roll in the mud after a bath, just like dogs, but there are some fundamental differences in their physique and behavior. You can train a horse as much as you like, but it will never make a good watchdog.

Horses and dogs can both form bonds with humans. Both animals can be used for therapy for various conditions, including helping humans with their depression and anxiety. Horses can even be guide animals, like a dog, but it takes longer and is more expensive. This is because horses are not dogs, and here are seven reasons why.

1. Horses Are Prey; Dogs are Predators

Horses are prey animals. Dogs are predators; in short, a wild pack of dogs might hunt and eat a horse.

This fundamental difference is essential to understanding horses. The way you train a horse, interact with it, and care for it all require that you respect the fact that horses are the food in the food chain. Thus, when it comes down to the age-old “fight or flight” response to fear, horses choose flight.

So while a horse can fight by kicking, biting, and rearing, they generally do this only when running away from the source of their fear is not possible.

Horses can be trained for intense situations and have been used in the past for war. But this is not due to finding the horse’s inner warrior. They are conditioned not to react to loud noises and to form bonds with their rider. The rider becomes their “signal” if the situation is “scary” or “fine.”

Also, when it comes to riding a horse into battle, calvarias were capitalizing on the herd instinct. Like lemmings and sheep, horses are pushed onwards by the herd even if the herd is head straight over a cliff.

2. Horses Forage; Dogs Hunt

In the wild, horses forage for food. This means they search for it, typically on the lookout for tasty grasses.

Dogs in the wild must hunt for their food. This means they will search for a food source then chase it down.

Thus, the African wild dog will hunt zebra. Not that zebra are horses, but they do have similarities. But even a domestic dog will chase horses unless the dog has been trained. This is bad for both the horse and the dog, as the dog might get fatally kicked.

3. Horses Are Herbivores; Dogs Are Carnivores

Horses are vegetarians; dogs love the meat.

Thus, a horse will be delighted when presented with a net full of alfalfa (lucerne). Hand the same thing to a dog, and he might think you intend the stuff to be his new bed.

Similarly, your dog is going to be delighted if you drop a piece of bacon on the floor. Your horse, however, will probably sniff it in confusion, possibly giving it a cautious lick.

If your horse eats a tiny bit of meat, such as stealing a bite of your burger, it is probably nothing to worry about…just like you swallowing that piece of gum when you were eight. But just like you shouldn’t attempt to eat gum all day, a horse really shouldn’t be fed meat. Their digestive system isn’t designed for it.

Horse Treats vs. Dog Treats

While dogs should not be fed horse feed and horses should not be fed dog food, the two animals can both eat some of the same treats. Also, there are some foods neither animal should ever have.

Here is a treat chart showing which foods are okay for horses or dogs. Please note that none of the chart foods are meant to replace the main diet of horses or dogs.

ApplesYes, but remove the seeds.Yes, but remove the core and seeds.  
AvocadoNo, it can cause colic, an irregular heartbeat, respiratory distress, and a host of other ailments.

No, it causes vomiting and diarrhea.
CarrotsYes, even the tops are fine.

Yes, even the tops are fine.
ChocolateNo, it can kill your horse.

No, it can kill your dog.
BroccoliProbably not. Yes, some people give their horses broccoli as a treat, and they are fine. But for some horses, it creates a lot of gas and intestinal problems.

Yes, but preferably cooked and in small pieces to prevent the dog from choking.

No, grapes (and raisins) are toxic.
MangoYes, but remove the pit.

Yes, but remove the pit.
TomatoesNo. Like dogs, even the green part of the tomato plant is toxic to horses.No. The occasional bite of tomato probably won’t hurt your dog, but the green part of the plant is toxic.

WatermelonYes, even some rind.Yes, so long as the rind is removed.

4. Horses Don’t Wag Their Tales to Say Hello

Dogs wag their tales in greetings and to show happiness all the time, but horses don’t.

Horses use their tails for several reasons, including swatting flies, swishing them in irritation, and even lifting them as a sign of excitement or happiness. Mares will also raise their tails when in heat as a “come hither” signal to stallions.

Dogs and horses will both “tuck” their tails when unhappy or scared, however.

So if horses don’t wag their tails, how do you know they are happy?

How to Check if a Horse is Happy

  1. Check your horse’s nose. A happy horse will have nostrils that are soft, round, and relaxed. An unhappy horse’s nostrils will be drawn thin and tight.
  2. Check your horse’s mouth. A happy horse will have soft lips that are curling downward, but this isn’t a frown. The mouth will probably be slightly open, too, due to a relaxed jaw. An unhappy horse will have lips that are tight and drawn.
  3. Check your horse’s tail. A happy horse’s tail should be loose, swinging free as they move, unless trying to swat a fly. A horse swishing their tail is a sign of annoyance, much like a cat.
  4. Check your horse’s ears. Ears don’t necessarily show delight; horses point them forward when they are concentrating or that’s the direction of a sound, but some horses do it because they are happy. Some horses also tend to let their ears go floppy when happy and relaxed, which is cute. However, just like a cat, if your horse has pinned their ears, they are angry.
  5. A relaxed breathing out. This is not a snort of disgust but almost like a gentle blow to the face. This is a sign of a happy horse that is pleased you are sharing their space.

A special note about head nodding: horses will sometimes nod and nicker when a person they like arrives, or they want attention. They are also known to do it when they see their dinner coming. But head bobbing and violent jerks of the head are typically a sign of a problem.

5. Horses Have Hooves; Dogs Have Paws

Once-upon-a-time horses had three to four toes, but they’ve evolved to a single hoof per foot. The hoof of a horse is nothing like a dog’s paw. However, there is more to a hoof than being a solid block of keratin.

Parts of a Horse’s Hoof

Inside the hoof are three main bones: pastern bone (the longest), pedal or coffin bone (the largest), and the navicular bone. There are blood vessels and nerves in these bones, and there are many tendons and ligaments that run down the leg attaching these bones to the horse’s foot.

Surrounding the bones is a layer of tissue called the laminae. The laminae are a highly sensitive part of the horse’s body and carry blood to the hoof.

Under the laminae is a rubber pad of tissue called the digital cushion. It’s like a built-in shock absorber.

The part of the hoof that is clearly visible, however, is the horney laminae. This is the part made of keratin, the same substance in human nails, hair, and rhino horns. Just like human nails and hair, this part of the hoof has no feeling. You, however, will feel it if a horse steps on your foot.

6. Horse’s Senses vs. Dog’s Senses

Horses and dogs share the five senses. But who has the best sight, smell, and hearing? Well, it depends. Sometimes horses are better, such as vision, other times dogs come out on top, such as smell.

Horse’s Vision vs. Dog’s

When it comes to seeing horses win. Like dogs, horses only have dichromatic vision. But their acuity and range of vision beat dogs, and if you were wondering, people, too.

Despite horses having superior sight, their depth perception is about the same as dogs’. Depth perception is best with two eyes. Due to horses having their eyes on the side of their heads, their “binocular range” (both eyes looking at the same thing) is limited.

Below is a chart comparing the vision of horses, dogs, and humans.

Attributes of EyesightHorsesDogsHumans
Typical acuity20/30  20/7520/20
Range of vision350 degrees  240 degrees180 degrees
ColorDichromatic vision. They see yellow and blue best, can’t see red.Dichromatic vision. They see yellow and blue best.Trichromatic vision. About 100 different shades, creating over a million colors.  
See objects on TV or screens.Yes (or they think so).

Mostly just flickering and motion.  Yes
Night visionMuch better than a human’s.Much better than a human’s.Not as good as a horse or dog’s.

Depth perception

65 degrees binocular, the other 285 monocular.

30-60 degrees.140 degrees

Horse’s Smell vs. Dog’s

Dogs win in regards to the sense of smell. They have more olfactory receptor genes and olfactory receptors than horses. However, even horses have a better sense of smell than humans.

One reason horses and dogs have a superior sense of smell to humans is the vomeronasal organ (aka VNO, Jacobson’s organ). Humans do have the VNO, contrary to what some believe. But the functionality of the VNO in humans is limited, and it is debated if it works at all. In animals, it not only works, picking up pheromones and other olfactory data, but it also has its own pathway to the brain.

The table below gives the general stats, as the sense of smell between dog breeds can vary greatly.

Attributes of SmellHorsesDogsHumans
Olfactory receptor genes  1066  1300350
Olfactory receptors35-100 million  300 million5-6 million

Horse’s Hearing vs. Dog’s

When it comes to hearing, dogs win again. Horse’s hearing is slightly better than humans, but not by much. Both horses and dogs can move their ears, including independently.

The stats below are general. When it comes to dog’s hearing, there is a range between breeds.

Attributes of HearingHorsesDogsHumans
Frequencies  14 – 25,000Hz  40Hz -50,000Hz20 – 20,000Hz
Ear Muscles10  186

7. Horses and Dogs Don’t Bond with Humans the Same

Humans can form bonds with horses and dogs, but they are not quite the same. As I wrote in another article, “Dogs are pets where horses are partners.” Or another way to put it: You can make a dog fall in love with you a lot faster than a horse.

This isn’t to say humans don’t love their horses or form meaningful bonds. There are stories out there between human and horse that will tug the heartstrings. Horses, like dogs, also pick up on a human’s emotions. This is why horses are not just useful for physical therapy, but, like dogs, are great for mental health and cognitive therapy work too.

Both dogs and horses can recognize people they’ve met before. A horse can even recall a person that they haven’t seen in six months from just a photograph. Both will willingly follow a human out of a bond, not just for food, but to get a horse to that level takes a lot more time than it would with a dog.

But as the New York Post headline read, “Horses Don’t Love Us as Much as We Love Them.” The Swedish study was carried out by veterinarian researchers and was published in Applied Animal Behavior Science at the end of 2020. It showed that horses perceive people as a “safe haven,” but it didn’t have to be their owner.

Where dogs, on the other hand, want their person. They pine for their person when the person isn’t there and do not like being alone. Horses don’t like being alone, either. They are herd animals. But while a horse is hanging out with their herd, they probably are not thinking about people. Well, until it comes to dinner time, that is.


Horses are not big dogs, despite having similarities. This might be for the best because even having a Great Dane climb onto your bed is easier to handle than a miniature pony trying the same stunt. But just because dogs are “man’s best friend” doesn’t mean horses do not hold a special place in many humans’ hearts.


Anrie Diedericks

I've been around horses since I was 6 years old and started competing at the age of 9. Horses are my greatest passion and I am thrilled to be able to share my 23 (and counting) years of experience and knowledge with you.

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